Social and religious dynamics of Muslims in Europe: 7 trends and 4 responses (I)

European Muslims are often influenced by Muslim majority nations and transnational movements led by well-known leaders. But statistics do not give any indication of the real religious commitment of Muslims in our continent.

27 JANUARY 2021 · 12:00 CET

Photo: <a target="_blank" href="">Rachid Oucharia</a>, Unsplash CC0.,
Photo: Rachid Oucharia, Unsplash CC0.


It is not easy to get accurate statistics on Muslims in Europe.(1)  The number of Muslims in Europe(2) has grown from just over 26,4 million in 2010 to about 32,5 million in 2016. This is between 5% and 6% of Europe’s population.

Depending on whether the migration from Islamic countries continues and if so in what way, this number could grow to 60 or even 75 million, that is 7,4% or even to 14% in 2050. We have to understand that an exact count of Muslims currently in Europe is not a simple task.

The 2016 estimates are based on Pew Research Center analysis and projections of the best available census and survey data in each country combined with data on immigration from Eurostat and other sources. While Muslim identity is often measured directly, in some cases it must be estimated indirectly based upon the national origins of migrants.

Also it is important to keep in mind that statistics do not give any indication of the religious commitment, beliefs and practices of a person. Some believe that only a third of all Muslims in Europe actively practice their Islamic faith. Also, we must beware of Islamizing socio-economic problems.

For example, when we speak of North African Muslims causing riots in Paris, we need to realize that this might have more to do with socio-economic problems than religion.

In this paper I want to look at seven trends that I see among Muslims in Europe and suggest four responses to this from Christians.


Trend 1: Influence of Muslim majority nations (3)

The countries of origin of Muslim immigrants, such as Morocco, Turkey, and Pakistan seek to maintain connections with their nationals, also other Islamic countries (e.g. Saudi Arabia and Iran) seek to influence the Muslim communities in Europe.

Such Interstate cooperation and even competition on matters concerning Islam and Muslims affects the development of Islam in Europe and impacts Islamic authority-making in Europe. Several Islamic countries have set a religious diaspora policy, “with the aim of determining what constitutes legitimate religious authority within the Muslim field of the diaspora” (4)

These countries carry out these policies by: a) setting up ‘advisory boards’; b) exporting imams, or religious officials; c) by sending teachers to speak during conferences and at special celebrations; d) by financing the building of mosques and e) making religious materials available. These ‘outside’ influences hinder the development of national expressions of Islam.

We have to understand, though, that these influences are not always received welcomingly by the local Muslim communities. The type of Islam promoted by these outside states does not appeal to the new generation Muslims in Europe.

“Many of the imams trained in state institutions in Muslim countries do not have the communication skills and cultural understanding of the new generations, and particularly, of young women.(5) Also, they do no reach all Muslims in a certain country.

In order to have a certain control over the Muslim community in their country, several European countries have established councils to reach out to their Muslim populations.

For instance, the French Council of the Muslim Faith. These national councils act as representative bodies for Muslims and advocate for Muslim causes. They also provide coordination, strategic leadership and some funding for a number of small, local Muslims organizations.

These local organizations engage in a wide range of activities designed to serve the day-to-day religious needs of Muslims, such as ensuring access to halal meat, operating prayer halls, sponsoring after-school classes on the Quran, distributing copies of the Quran or providing burial services.


Trend 2: Influence of transnational movements and networks

Besides the influence of Islamic countries on the development of Muslims in Europe, we also see the influence of transnational movements and networks. There are several of such movements, and I want to briefly mention some.


Wahhabism, as a specific interpretation of the Islamic tradition, emerged in the 18th century in the Arabian Peninsula. It is the official doctrine of Saudi Arabia. Wahhabism is characterized by its rejection of critical approaches to the Islamic tradition.

Salafism promotes a literalist interpretation of Islamic sources, nothing can come between the believer and the Text; customs, culture, and Sufism must all be done away with. Adherents of Wahhabism reject all ideas and concepts that are deemed Western.

They contend that the Qur ‘an and Hadith, when interpreted according to the precedents of the pious forefathers (al-salaf al-salih), offer the most superior form of guidance to Muslims.

Salafi interpretations are no longer limited to the Saudi kingdom but are now followed by Muslims around the world, including Europe. The movement has succeeded in imposing its beliefs not as one interpretation among many but as the global orthodox doctrine of Sunni Islam.

Saudi Arabia spends millions of dollars to “wholly or partly finance Islamic centres, mosques, colleges, and Islamic schools in Muslim minority countries. According to some estimates, the Saudi Kingdom spent over $80 billion on various Islam-related causes in Muslim-minority countries.

It is extremely difficult to measure the influence of Salafism on Muslims in Europe. The easy access to theology that Salafism offers is one of the main reasons for its popularity The influence cannot simply be measured by statistics.

In a minority culture lacking both institutions for religious education and the means to produce new forms of knowledge, the widespread diffusion of Salafi teachings means that even non-Salafi Muslims evaluate their Islamic practice by Wahhabi standards. The Salafi norm often becomes the standard image of what a good Muslim ought to be.

Despite the strong presence of many different Islamic interpretations at the grassroots level, the Salafi revivalist interpretation of Islam dominates the Internet proselytization. Although there is a connection between Salafism and jihadism, one must not assume, however, that all Salafis eventually become jihadis.

The Gülen movement

The Gülen movement refers to a cluster of religious, educational and social organizations founded and inspired by Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish Islamic scholar, author and speaker now in his late 70s.

The movement strives to give faithful Muslims the secular education they need to thrive in the modern world. At the same time, it also emphasizes the importance of traditional religious teachings.

To this end, the movement has inspired the creation of a worldwide network of schools and other centres of learning that focus on secular subjects in the classroom but also offer extracurricular programs that emphasize religious themes.

In Germany, the European country with the strongest Gülen presence, there are at least a dozen of these schools and more than 150 smaller educational and cultural centres.

While open to students of all backgrounds, Gülen-inspired schools in Europe typically cater to Turkish immigrants and their offspring. Many of the schools charge tuition, but it is generally low because the schools are subsidized by wealthy supporters of Fethullah Gülen.

The Muslim Brotherhood

Another important movement in Europe is the Muslim Brotherhood. The Muslim Brotherhood is without question the world’s most influential modern Islamist organization.

Founded in Egypt in 1928, the movement advocates the embrace of Islam as a way to promote both personal development and broader social reform.

By the 1980s, many of the emigrants who had taken the Muslim Brotherhood to Europe realized that they would not be returning to their countries of origin. They began to work in various European states to create more permanent organizations inspired by the movement. These organizations have set up various educational, charitable, athletic, and cultural activities.

Like the Salafists of today, followers of the Muslim Brothers consider the Salaf – the first generations of Muslims and companions of the Prophet – as their point of reference, and refuse to follow a particular school of jurisprudence.

Contrary to Wahhabi-inspired Salafists, however, followers of the Muslim Brothers rely on ijtihad – the power to interpret the revealed text – as a way to construct a form of jurisprudence adapted to the circumstances of modernity.

The Muslim Brotherhood might be defined as an activist movement with a devoutly religious outlook. They want to reconcile the demands of Islam and secular life, without losing their soul in the process.

Its code of behaviour is based on respect for the institutional and political environment of the host country, together with the preservation of its religious and ethical heritage.

Sheikh Qaradawi is the most prominent religious figure inspiring the followers of this movement. He was one of the first to become interested in the minority condition of Muslims living in the West in the early 1980s.

He is currently the president of the European Council for Fatwa and Research, created in London in 1997 on the initiative of the Federation of Islamic Organizations in Europe (FIOE).

FIOE is an umbrella group for large national Muslim Brotherhood affiliated organisations. All of these organizations have similar goals and objectives: promoting Islam as a comprehensive way of life, strengthening the Muslim community in Europe and encouraging Muslims to participate in European society in order to promote Islamic causes.

The Federation also founded the European Council for Fatwa and Research in Dublin, which conducts research on Islamic jurisprudence and dispenses religious opinions on practical issues specific to Muslims in Europe, such as the observance of prayers and the permissibility – given Islamic proscriptions against interest and usury – of using Western financial systems.

Sufi Orders

Sufism represents the inward-looking, mystical dimension of Islam. Sufism in an approach that mixes mainstream religious observances, such as prescribed daily prayers, with a range of supplementary spiritual practices, such as the ritual chanting of God’s attributes (zhikr) or the veneration of saints.

Sufi orders in Europe are deeply embedded in the cultures of many Muslim communities. Given the pervasiveness of Sufi orders in Europe, and the often informal nature of their influence, it can be difficult to determine their actual size.

In addition, while some Muslims choose to formally join a particular order, others may opt for a more informal relationship, treating the heads of Sufi orders as respected spiritual guides rather than as formal religious leaders.

Nevertheless, Sufism’s influence is strong. In Germany, for example, about 20% of the Turks are thought to be active members of Sufi-based organizations.


Trend 3: The proliferation of religious authority

Due to changes in the structure of Islam in Europe and the influence of modern mass media, we see changes taking place in the role and authority of religious leaders. More and more lay people have access to the religious authoritative texts.

Also, the mass media created a tremendous increase in the number of ‘authority’ voices in the public sphere. We see a fragmentation and pluralization of religious authority among Muslims in Europe.

Cyber imams compete with mosque imams. Self-made teachers compete with established authority figures, like the sheiks of al-Azhar or Medina. New people, not all religiously trained, claim the right to speak on behalf of Islam in authoritative ways. Through their YouTube channels, blogs such people can become enormously influential.

For example, the Egyptian preacher Amr Khaled, currently based in the U.K., is considered the leading exponent of a kind of “self-help” Islam, in which he combines advice and motivational slogans with religious stories from the life of the Prophet Muhammad.

Another influential person in Europe is Zakir Naik, who is based in Mumbai, India. He has a satellite television channel called Peace TV. Naik is a medical doctor rather than a classically trained religious scholar.

Nevertheless, he addresses contemporary issues using a combination of common sense and an encyclopaedic knowledge of the Quran and other Islamic sources. He is also an Islamic polemicist, and frequently compares Islam with other religious traditions (he is comfortable quoting from the Bible), always emphasizing that Islam is superior to other religions.

Related to the issue of Islamic religious authority is the matter of educating imams and religious teaching in a European context.(6) Many European countries are now either starting imam training programmes or are in the middle of discussions to do so.

Many European countries want to train their own imams instead of importing them from Muslim majority countries. Also Muslims themselves express the need for imams who know the context and the language, and can guide them on religious and cultural issues (such as marriage, funerals, etc.)

Many Muslims face the challenge of how to educate imams and religious teachers, balancing loyalty to the sources and the umma with the European context.

Nevertheless, there is still confusion about the role of imams. European governments often assume that the imam is the Islamic equivalent of a priest and that he has full authority over his congregation.

Inevitably, it becomes the duty of the imams to govern their communities—especially in fighting radicalisation—although they lack the necessary training and knowledge to handle these issues.

A second part of this article will be published next week.


Bert de Ruiter, Consultant Christian-Muslim relations with Operation Mobilization and the European Evangelical Alliance.



1.  The US based Pew Research Center is considered one of the most reliable sources of these data. The information here is taken from several of their publications in the past year, such as : “The Future of the Global Muslim Population”, Projections for 2010-2030. January 2011 “The Future of World Religions: Population Growth Projections 2010-2015, April 2015; “Europe’s Growing Muslim Population”, November 2017 ;

2.  In its 2017 report “Europe’s Growing Muslim Population” Pew defines Europe as the 28 countries presently in the European Union, plus Norway and Switzerland).

3.  Sources: Benjamin Bruce, Governing Islam Abroad. Turkish and Moroccan Muslims in Western Europe. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019.

4.  Bruce, 77

6.  Mohammed Hashas, Jan Jaap de Ruiter and Niels Valdemar Vinding (eds.), Imams in Western Europe: Developments, Transformations, and Institutional Challenges. Amsterdam University Press, 2018.

Published in: Evangelical Focus - Engaging Muslims - Social and religious dynamics of Muslims in Europe: 7 trends and 4 responses (I)